At the moment, walking into Devin Borden Gallery feels like conceptual whiplash—in one gallery Chris Cascio’s wristband paintings, whip-it installations, and porn-ad enlargements reek of a drug-and-party culture hangover of massive proportions. In the adjacent gallery, quiet, modestly-scaled drawings by Sharon Engelstein differ so greatly from Cascio’s pieces that, at first glance, they seem withdrawn and clinical.
Part of the perceived sterility of these drawings lies in their precision: the lines are so straight, so angular that they seem to derive directly from computer software and, indeed, Engelstein maps out the fuzzy, halo-centric colors in her drawings with CAD software. But it isn’t until the viewer sticks her nose to the glass that she can tell that the harder lines and dots are hand-drawn. Engelstein’s hand wavers ever so slightly, and the jig is up—up close, the drawings become parodies or caricatures of their previously cold, dull selves, offering something less serious, and more self-deprecating. The lines are calculated and deliberate, yes, but they are also thoughtful, sweet, and considered, and that is ultimately a saving grace.
The drawings also read as sharp, sleek, and even sexy. The soft clouds of color lend a strange translucency, creating a sense of layering, as if they were on Mylar rather than opaque paper. Trying to figure out how she did it—whether there’s Mylar or not, what’s printed and what’s drawn, if it’s translucent or opaque—is fun, but it’s also a quickly tiring series of gimmicks. Despite all the oohs and aahs these may elicit, Engelstein’s smartest decisions are her simplest. The work is at its best when it isn’t showy; when she’s just making small, yet certain, formal decisions.
The best example of this is how Engelstein chooses to juxtapose her hand-drawn lines with the printed color underneath. Occasionally we see soft blobs or vague cumulus clouds of color, but most of the time the color is more structured, like a stratus cloud or the trail a fighter jet leaves as it flies through the sky. While most of her lines run through the centers of the trails of fuzz, in Green Slime they run along the outside, as if it is a shaded map suggesting lakes surrounded by land, or islands within a lake: we can’t discern what is land and what is water.
In Green Slime, Engelstein activates the fuzz instead of treating it like a background or some tepid optical accessory as in other drawings. The cloudy trails feel sculpturally combative, continuously pushing up against harder, incisive lines. They go beyond something aesthetically pleasing: they constantly demarcate and deterritorialize themselves, which is conceptually exciting.
Mystic is not as formally compelling as Green Slime, but it tells a more interesting story. In Mystic, the lines break into small, shattered shards, as if pieces of Antarctica broke off and started floating around the Pacific Ocean, bumping into each other as they circle a central blue hole, or perhaps surrounding a saturated moon reflecting off the water.
Many of the drawings lend themselves to narrative, but some are characters in themselves. Facing each other, Ghost Twins look like competing, BFF sock puppets; P3UV looks like a floating court jester or a slain bank robber, the pantyhose still stretched tautly over his face. Pink Taste starts at the bottom as a small satellite, echoing and reverberating some indecipherable message circularly across galaxies.
What is most interesting about this show, and possibly most problematic, is that these tightly knitted renderings all read as prototypes for future projects. Why not just make the final draft? Engelstein answers this question with Harkness, the weakest piece in the exhibition. A sculpture, the piece offers us physicality, but with the vapid, predictable scale of the 3-D print, which sucks all the dynamism out of the work. As prototype drawings, we can still imagine the three-dimensional iterations as infinitesimally small or cosmically large—either electrons or entire continents.
Paired with the bombast of Chris Cascio’s work, Sharon Engelstein’s drawings can come off as stubborn and rigid, but give them time: soon they will warm up and start telling some pretty odd and particular stories.
Sharon Engelstein: Whatever You Think of Is True was on view at Devin Borden Gallery from March 6- April 18, 2015.